Sunday, August 5, 2007

Do Not Resuscitate

I went sailing Saturday for the first time in three weeks, following nearly two weeks on my motorcycle on my annual California ride with my brother. (I'll share highlights of that in another post).

While I was motoring out the main channel of the Alamitos Bay Marina, single-handing with the mainsail hoisted, the old Albin engine suddenly got a lot louder, making a clattering or knocking sound.

I quickly shut it down and gybed back toward my slip, about 3/4 mile away. With no engine to hold the boat into the wind under autopilot control, there wasn't an easy way to drop the main, so I decided to use it to sail into my slip. It was downwind and then a reach in 6-8 knots of wind most of the way back. But it was 150 feet straight into the wind up the narrow fairway between the gangways to my slip. Then the wind became a crosswind as I turned into the slip, with no way to spill it from the mainsail because the aft shroud prevented the boom from going forward enough. I made it without problem, however, even managing to step off the boat onto my slip finger and get to the head of the slip to stop the boat before it hit the gangway, despite the wind-filled main.

My initial visual inspection of the engine compartment found no problems. I removed the sparkplugs and spun the engine with the starter-generator motor and no unusual noises were heard. I put the plugs back in and attached the wires, and the noises recurred as soon as the engine started. Then I removed the wires, but left the plugs in place and all was quiet again. Hmmmm.

This morning my friend and mechanical mentor John Dickerson came over and made the same tests. This time the engine knocked loudly even with the ignition wires detached, but plugs installed. The oil film on the bearings had drained away overnight. Next he used only one plug, screwed into one cylinder at a time to see if the problem was a bad rod bearing on one cylinder. The engine knocked with the plug in each cylinder, leading John to conclude that the probable cause is a bad main bearing.

The parts to fix it are probably available from the Albin dealer, AME Ship Equipment, Inc. in Miami. I might even be able to buy a short block. The time to have done that, however, was 18-months ago when we replaced the valves and valve guides and left the bottom end alone, relying on reports of recent past rebuilds.

I had issued an engine health directive in my mind in recent months, knowing that a fatal problem could occur and deciding I was unwilling to put any significant money into fixing it again.

It lasted 110.5 hours since we rebuilt it. I added the hour meter when I installed the engine. It had taken about 60 of those hours to track down a series of gremlins that caused intermittent engine stoppages. They were all fuel related and ended after I had a new fuel tank built to replace the original, and installed a fuel pump with the proper low pressure setting that no longer overwelmed the carburetor needle valve, flooding the engine to a stop at low speeds. The last fix was only about 10 hours ago when I was able to identify and purchase hotter sparkplugs to end a tendency to foul plugs at low rpm.

Proving John's diagnosis would require removing and dismantling the engine. Oddly enough, leaving the engine in place will allow me to get some use from the boat.

With the sparkplugs out, and no gasoline flowing to the carburetor, the powerful starter-generator motor will spin the engine and drive the boat at about a half-knot through the transmission and propeller shaft. I tested it successfully today. The bearings that won't support internal combustion, are still good enough to enable the crankshaft to spin without any reciprocating load.

Unlike most engines, the starter motor on the Albin is designed to spin constantly. It connects to the flywheel with v-belts instead of a gear. At low speed it is a starter, drawing current from the battery to turn. When the engine starts and speeds up, the unit becomes a generator as its electrical flow naturally reverses direction and it send current back into the batteries. Some golf carts use the same simple system.

Obviously I can't go very far under battery power, but I can certainly get in and out of my slip and out to the nearest marina channel, where I can hoist the main and begin to sail. It will be a test, however, to see if I can tack the boat upwind through the main channel out to the ocean single-handed, as I normally sail.

What is the long-range plan? If the engine was an Atomic Four, a common gasoline engine in old sailboats of the 1960s and 1970s, I'd buy a BetaMarine diesel, which has a model with engine mounts that match. On my boat, however, repowering with a BetaMarine or any other engine requires building new mounting rails. It's a minimum of $8,000, including the engine, and it could climb a lot higher.

When I bought the boat it had an outboard engine. After I fixed the Albin and had it running reliably, I sold that engine this spring.

But buying another outboard and installing it differently, so that it can be controlled from the cockpit, is probably the cheapest solution at this point. I'll just have to get used to the blight of an outboard on the transom.

According to its serial number, my Albin was built in 1967. It lasted 40 years. That's a long time in the marine environment, especially for a seawater-cooled engine.

This afternoon, after declaring the Albin dead, I cut off life support. I removed the fuel lines, and the fuel pump and drained the carburetor. Now I can remove the plugs, spin the engine with the starter motor all I want and not send an explosive gasoline mixture into my engine compartment.

Then I started looking at my marine catalogs and searching the internet for outboard and mounting brackets.

Eventually I'll remove the Albin and open up some prime storage space. I'll also offer some good parts for sale - a year-old cylinder head, an 18-month-old Zenith carburetor with custom manifold flange to mate with the Albin manifold, and a beautiful bit of machining to adapt the bronze flame arrestor from the old Stromberg carb to the new Zenith. There will also be an excellent cast aluminum exhaust riser, anti-siphon valve, and the rest of the re-engineered exhaust system that ended the possibility of cooling water backing up into the engine. The starter-generator is only three years old and works perfectly. The magneto is in good condition, with a spare set of new points and is irreplaceable. The transmission is in excellent condition, too.


Anonymous said...

We just purchased a 1968 Ericson 30. Our predecessor had installed a used Universal M-25 (about 1500 hours on it). He didn't mention needing to fabricate new engine mounts. I wonder if the Universal M-25 was designed to use Atomic-4 engine mounts? I also wonder if some of the Ericson 30s came with the Atomic-4?
I have read all of your blog entries and have enjoyed them. I hope you will continue to post.

Dick O'Reilly said...

Thanks for your kind words. I'll continue to post. Lots of stuff to report on.

Ericson did switch to the Atomic 4, but I don't know when. It may not be that difficult to put an Atomic 4-sized diesel in. The Albin mounts are 8 5/8 off centerline, while the Atomic 4 mounts are 8 3/4 off centerline.

But the Albin mounts are nearly level with crankshaft longitudinal centerline and Atomic 4 (BetaMarine) are 2 11/16 above that longitudinal centerline.

Dick O'Reilly said...

CORRECTION: I miswrote the engine mount dimensions. It should be 5 5/8 off centerline for the Albin and 5 3/4 for the Atomic 4.

I also have learned that BetaMarine will supply its engine with custom mounts sized for the existing rails.